Amazon just got one step closer to delivering packages to customers’ doorsteps by drone.
This week, the Federal Aviation Administration said the e-commerce giant would be free to test its delivery drones in the United States, as long as Amazon flies the drones under 400 feet and at a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour. The move is not altogether unexpected. According to Reuters, just last month, the FAA issued a similar approval, but for an old prototype, one that Amazon argued was outdated by the time the approval came down.
Now, Amazon is free to test its Prime Air service, while also creating a regulatory pathway for other businesses interested in launching similar services.
Though this is a major milestone for Amazon, it’s important to remember that the ultimate vision for Prime Air—in which drones will fly autonomously for up miles to reach customers—will still be hamstrung by the FAA’s recently proposed rules regarding commercial drone operations, including the requirement that drones stay within the operator’s line of sight at all times. During the testing phase, that shouldn’t be a problem for Amazon. But over time, if that rule doesn’t change, it would be. What’s more, Amazon is still prohibited from flying its drones over “densely populated areas,” in accordance with the proposed rules. That means these tests will still be a highly limited version of what Amazon ultimately intends to accomplish with Prime Air.
When the rules were initially proposed in February, Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy said in a statement that “The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers. We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”
Still, this move should be construed as progress, if not for Amazon, then for the FAA itself. It took the agency years to come up with proposed rules for commercial drones, but it took them only a matter of weeks to issue this new exemption to Amazon, showing that the FAA is serious about its commitment to expediting the exemption process. Now, according to its website, rather than analyzing each petition for exemption from scratch, the FAA can issue an exemption “when it finds it has already granted a previous exemption similar to the new request.”
Many questions need to be answered before Amazon can deploy Prime Air as CEO Jeff Bezos originally envisioned it, but for Amazon, this news provides at least a glimmer of hope.